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Breathing Out the Fat?

December 31, 2014

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Trigger warning: Discussion of the science of weight loss.

Perhaps some of you have seen this NPR article titled “When You Burn Off That Fat, Where Does It Go?” Maybe you have even seen the TEDx talk by Ruben Meerman called “The Mathematics of Weight Loss.”


In the video, Meerman talks about the physics of losing weight, specifically where the fat from our bodies goes. It’s a very interesting discussion on the basics of chemistry and the chemical reactions of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen between themselves. Why those three? Because that is what human fat is made up of chemically: C55H104O6.

According to Meerman, the end result of the reaction of the body using a kilogram of fat is the excretion of carbon Lungsdioxide and water; from his mathematics, we expel the products mostly through exhalation (84% CO2) with the remaining probably expelled as sweat or tears.

I find this discussion pretty neat and a wonderful example of theoretical science. I say “theoretical” in the sense that this reaction is very simple and does not, indeed cannot, include the reality that human bodies are incredibly complicated. Meerman himself says that his reaction equation does not include ketosis, the process where the body switches from deriving energy from glucose to ketones while we sleep. He also neglects to include the increase of the hormone ghrelin in the bloodstream as weight is lost, which causes hunger to increase and decreases the effectiveness of leptin, the hormone which regulates appetite and weight control.

Another important factor that is left out, and cannot really be accounted for, is the psychology of weight loss. Throughout Meerman’s video, he consistently says that the only thing people need to do to lose weight is move more and eat less. Alisa Anokhina’s TEDx talk explains why this just isn’t true from a psychology perspective:


In particular I want to talk to you about a sentence which you might have said yourself at some point or you’ve heard someone else say. And the sentence is this: “losing weight is easy; just eat less and exercise more.” And you see this in the media a lot so, it’ll come up as a sort of sarcastic headline from the University of Obvious every once in a while. And it seems like a rational premise. So, if calories in is less than calories out, you lose weight. Right? No. It’s how it would work if we’re talking about, say lab rats, and it’s totally legitimate thing from a physiological standpoint. But, if we are talking about people, it’s more complicated than that.

She goes on to talk about some recent studies where subjects had goals to lose 55 kg., or 121 lbs., and only actually lost 6-8 kgs., or 13-18 lbs. Another study that showed that even when participants stuck with their chosen weight loss plan, they all eventually gained back almost half of the weight. She explains how the media perpetuates the idea of calories in/calories out and SUPER SUCCESSFUL WEIGHT LOSS OMG IN THREE DAYS!!!!

Finally, Anokhina continues on to the problems of weight loss and diets, and addresses them with a more moderate, psychological standpoint. The majority of that presentation is only a hair’s breath away from Health At Every Size:

  • Deprivation is detrimental, so find food that you enjoy, that feeds your body and fulfills your nutritional needs.
  • Self-control is limited, and like a muscle it will become fatigued. Unlike a muscle, it doesn’t become stronger with use and eventually self-control becomes much harder to use. Instead of forcing yourself to do things that you hate to do, find things that you really enjoy doing (or can moderately tolerate) and do those things. If you don’t like to lift weights, don’t! If you prefer to dance, do so!
  • Ironic thought suppression and rumination will beat you down every time. Anokhina’s example is pizza: if you say “I’m not going to think about pizza (because I am on a diet),” you will dwell on thoughts of pizza until you must cave in. It isn’t an “if” but a “when.” Instead of doing this, say “tomorrow I will have pizza and I will make it myself and put awesome stuff on it.” Be mindful of the things you eat and what are in them, and also quality is better than quantity, both of which can “prevent binge eating.”

Personal story: when I could buy better quality stuff and make my own foods and was very, very careful about keeping to a 4-5 meals a day plan, I did not binge. I was much happier, my moods were more stable, I had more energy, and was willing to do fun things that my depression prevented me from doing. However, as of late I haven’t been doing so well on anything besides school and have suffered because of it.

To wrap things up, Meerman’s presentation is a cool way to understand chemistry but does little to explain human biology. Anokhina’s presentation is closer to our understanding of physiology AND psychology.

In the end, what is most important is being HAPPY. Personally, what makes me happy is language acquisition.


I am learning Gaeilge now, and I all I have to say is !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I MEAN, JUST LISTEN TO THIS!.



Kitsune Yokai

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Jennifer Hansen permalink
    December 31, 2014 1:38 pm

    And may I just give a shout-out to the message of “Royals?” “We’re the rising generation of the lower economic class, so you’d think we’d want to be anywhere but here. But we reject the pop-culture drone of aspirational consumerism, artfully shot glamor, and celebrity meltdowns. We find ways to be awesome right where we are.” See also “Team.”

  2. Len permalink
    December 31, 2014 5:00 pm

    Great article! I had never logically thought through the issue of human resolution and self-control. But I have noticed that since I have been producing all of my own meals (thanks to some extra time) I have not missed or craved anything at all. I can cook whatever I want for myself and always enjoy it, and I think my body has responded positively.

    It’s good to have a sensible comeback for all those ‘calories in, calories out’ comments.

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